Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Book Review: Bait & Switch

Here I am again with another timely review of a hot new book... that came out months ago, was read months ago, and isn't on the bestseller list any more. But as we like to say in the publishing industry, every book is new to someone who hasn't read it yet.

Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed was a huge bestseller, with good reason. I personally had a few problems with the author's "poor for a month" roleplaying, but the resulting book did paint a pretty devastating picture of what it's like to try to survive on low-wage work. (For a perspective that is less focused on an upper-middle class author trying to do this, and more on the people who really live this life, I recommend The Working Poor by David Shipler, as did NYCMoney a few months ago).
In Bait & Switch, Ehrenreich again goes undercover, this time with the aim of penetrating the corporate world. Since she never actually gets a job in the corporate world, the book is actually a portrait of "the shadowy world of the white-collar unemployed." Before I read the book, I had some doubts about it. From the description and some advance reviews, I thought, "OK, just because Barbara Ehrenreich can't fake her way into a corporate job, it doesn't automatically mean that the middle class is being used and abused by evil corporations." That isn't quite her point. She does show that even people who technically do everything right-- market themselves, network, undergo image makeovers and life coaching, etc.-- still sometimes can't get jobs, and that the upward mobility and job security the middle class see as their birthright are under assault. But here as in Nickel & Dimed, though the author's willingness to use herself as a guinea pig makes the story more dramatic and intimate than it might otherwise be, it can also be a liability.
Ehrenreich decides that she will try to get a white collar job that pays at least $50,000 a year. She puts together a resume and references which support her claim to have experience in freelance event planning and public relations. She doesn't say exactly what was on the resume and is a little vague about the level of flat-out lying she did. But she tells the reader that she has no experience in the corporate world, her entire working life having been spent in journalism, academia, and activism. She admits that she has disadvantages as a prospective employee, given that she is a middle-aged woman who will be claiming to be returning to the workforce after a long absence to raise children. But she seems quite confident that her background, experience, and being "a quick study" will make her a credible candidate for a job as a PR director at a corporation.
I personally have done some hiring and firing in my time, and you know what? If someone like Barbara Ehrenreich (or rather, "Barbara Alexander") applied for a job with me, I'm not sure she'd get it. Maybe there would be something about the resume that didn't ring true, maybe I wouldn't be sure that she could really do the job, but even if I thought she could, there might just be others who could do it better, and for whom I wouldn't have to make a leap of faith to hire them. When you're hiring for a $50,000 a year kind of job, chances are you can find someone who has some direct experience that will lead them into that position, if not even someone whose last job was the exact rung below it on the ladder. At one point, Ehrenreich even goes out on limb saying she wants a salary of $100,000 to get into a seminar for "executives in transition" (though it turns out the seminar is for people at least at the $200,000 level). This to me was a sign of her being a bit naive in her expectations, and I'm sure she came across that way to others as well.
But if you can get past all that, the book does brilliantly skewer the whole industry that has grown up around middle-class job seekers. She hires a couple of coaches who are ridiculously unqualified to be telling anyone how to do much of anything. One of them, a man named Patrick, is practically speechless and shattered by the time Ehrenreich is through with him, having turned the tables by suggesting he hire her to do his PR after she sees how pathetic his motivational videos are. Ehrenreich's sharp wit is apparent throughout, exposing the absurdity of resume experts, job fairs and networking sessions at Fuddrucker's. I especially enjoyed the conclusion of one scene at a corporate networking event that turns out to be more about religious recruitment:
"I entered the Norcross Fellowship Lunch as an atheist, but now... I discover I am a believer, and what I believe is this: if the Lord exists, if... some great spinner of galaxies, hurler of meteors, creator and extinguisher of species... should manifest itself, you do not "network" with it any more than you would light a cigarette on the burning bush."
As the jacket claims, Bait & Switch is "alternately hilarious and tragic." It's an enjoyable read and certainly a cautionary tale for anyone who's looking for a job.


Anonymous said...

I really liked her first book - Nickel and Dimed and felt she did a great job researching it (she did go undervover in 3+ cities). I think she did the best job anyone could do by submitting herself to the working poor conditions ...the book really made you aware of the problems and issues facing the 'working poor'

I dunno about this new book. Doesn't sound like she has much of a thesis if she doesn't find a job...finding a job as a maid/waitress is a lot different than trying to find a job in the corporate world (especially at 50 with no experience).

Nina Smith said...

Good review. I haven't read the book, but find it a bit of stretch for her to speak for middle-class job seekers. Perhaps her voice rings true for the stay-at-home moms returning to work after a decade with the kids.

I've never found work by going to job fairs or superficial networking events. You find the good positions through people you know. Bottom line. It's what men call the "good ole boys club". Women would benefit by applying similar techniques.

Anonymous said...

I think the title "Bait and Switch" refers to what she is doing. She is baiting hiring managers with a fake resume and references, and then switching to a no experience entry-level worker. I mean, come on, who couldn't spot a faker in their own field? If someone doesn't know the jargon, hasn't heard of new approaches in the field, or is just plain out of touch they will be passed over. I think her thesis is really weak because she picked a job she really isn't qualified for. Who would read a book called "Cry Baby: I want more salary than I am worth in a field I know nothing about." :)

Caitlin said...

Your review makes me think I should give the book a chance, if merely for the humor factor. I was excited when it came out, but frankly her attitude in interviews was a real turn off (which was disappointing to me since I thought I really liked her in general). She seemed to really focus on how her whole job seeking experience had a "blame the victim" vibe that I felt really oversimplified things. Basically what you and the other commenters are saying :)

Anonymous said...

Fro your review, it sounds like her idea was pretty far fetched. Corporate PR is not something a person wanders into off of the street. Maybe at the bottom level, but I'm a reporter and all the PR folks I deal with come from journalism, boutique PR firms, large PR firms, and corporate PR departments. Where else would they come from?